One afternoon in New York City, George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky were sitting at the piano working together on a new ballet. Stravinsky inquired how long one of the dances should be, and Balanchine responded, “Oh, about two-and-a-half minutes.” Stravinsky shot back, “Don’t say ‘about,’ there is no such thing as ‘about.’ Is it two minutes, two minutes and fifteen seconds, two minutes and thirty seconds, or something in between? Give me the exact time, please, and I’ll come as close to it as possible.” Balanchine later commented that their work together often centered on such negotiations about time: “When I know how long a piece must take,” Stravinsky explained, “then it excites me.” As if to underscore the point, Balanchine would answer critics prodding him to say what a ballet was “about” with a quip: “about twenty-eight minutes.”

“About twenty-eight minutes” was more than a clever riposte; it amounted to an artistic creed. Both men thrived on limits and scoffed at romantic notions of “inspiration.” Stravinsky was adamant that his music be accurately “transmitted” and not “interpreted” by “megalomaniac” musicians more interested in spilling their souls than in the notes at hand. Similarly, Balanchine cautioned his dancers against “acting” or “emoting”; they were to restrict themselves to clear, musically precise execution of steps. Sweeping theories and “fancy” critical interpretations did not interest them. “Horses don’t talk,” said Balanchine. “They just go!”

Stravinsky and Balanchine shared other things as well. Both were born in Saint Petersburg: Stravinsky in 1882, Balanchine in 1904. Stravinsky’s father was a bass singer at the Maryinsky Theater, and the young Igor spent his childhood immersed in the theatrical life of the Imperial capital. Balanchine studied at the imperial Theater School of Ballet and, like Stravinsky, spent long hours watching the grand productions of the Imperial Court and Theater. Both were brought up in the Russian Orthodox faith and remained lifelong practitioners. Both settled in Europe in the wake of war and the Russian Revolution, and moved to America in the 1930s: Stravinsky eventually settled in Los Angeles and Balanchine made his home in New York, where he founded and directed the New York City Ballet from 1948 until his death in 1983.

Balanchine was an accomplished musician, and the two men were often seen bent over a score. Stravinsky was also well versed in classical ballet, but their collaborations revolved primarily around music. For each, music was the “floor” without which there could be no dance: “The composer creates time,” said Balanchine, “and we have to dance to it.” As such, Balanchine revered Stravinsky and deferred to him willingly. He once recalled their first meeting: “It was 1925. It was like meeting a cardinal. You’re not nervous—I was nervous when I met Ginger Rogers—but here I wanted the truth. Stravinsky was the greatest comfort I ever had.”

Balanchine transformed classical ballet from a lyrical, romantic, fairy-tale art into a gripping, sharp-edged, plotless drama of pure movement, and Stravinsky’s music led him to some of his most innovative choreography. The two men collaborated on many ballets, including Apollon Musagète, Orpheus, and Agon, and after the composer’s death in 1971, Balanchine choreographed others, among them Stravinsky Violin Concerto, Duo Concertant, and Symphony in Three Movements, to existing Stravinsky scores. The Stravinsky-Balanchine ballets make up a stylistically distinct oeuvre, which to this day exemplifies twentieth-century modernism in ballet.

Charles M. Joseph has written the first book about their collaboration. Stravinsky and Balanchine: A Journey of Invention is both a history and a detailed analysis of the work, particularly Apollo (1928), Agon (1957), and Stravinsky Violin Concerto (1972). I once heard Joseph, who is a musicologist and Stravinsky scholar, give a lecture in which he analyzed sections of Agon: he sat at the piano and moved deftly between musical passages and explication. He took the work apart like a poem, and the result was fascinating. So his book has raised high expectations.

Joseph is good on the music. He guides the reader through Stravinsky’s copious musical drafts and revisions, offering interesting ideas about why the composer added, shifted, or discarded material. He shows, for example, how Stravinsky transformed and integrated what Joseph calls “compositional vocabulary” from Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins into his own Violin Concerto. His close attention to Stravinsky’s sources and methods consistently illuminates the music while opening the discussion onto broader historical and aesthetic questions.

When he turns to the dances, however, Joseph seems lost. He insists that Balanchine and Stravinsky were “full of theatricality,” and that to see them, as many critics have, as mere “formalists” is a mistake. Yet though he girds his analysis of the dances they created with history, reviews, and interviews with dancers, Joseph’s account is no less formal: he dissects ballets in painstaking detail—note by note, step by step, phrase by phrase. But he fails to show how the dances hold together and never pierces to the dynamic or “theatrical” core of a ballet.


In the end, his book gives us little sense of the character of this great collaboration or the spirit of the ballets. The Stravinsky-Balanchine ballets were fragile and complicated creatures, and behind the steps and notes lies a body of ideas, beliefs, and artistic ambitions. Indeed, Stravinsky and Balanchine’s radical aesthetic grew out of a deeply religious, classical, and humanist view of art.


The roots of the Stravinsky-Balanchine collaboration stretch back to 1890, and the St. Petersburg première of Tchaikovsky and Marius Petipa’s great ballet The Sleeping Beauty. The ballet, based on Perrault’s seventeenth-century fairy tale, was a lavish full-length spectacle, replete with special effects: multicolored fountains, lilac bushes, rotating sets, and a detailed reproduction of the great palace at Versailles, with Apollo ascendant to the tune of “Vive Henri IV!” in the final apotheosis. It paid homage to the French Grand Siècle: to aristocratic grandeur, classical symmetry, the court origins of ballet, and the music of Jean-Baptiste Lully.

In 1915, at age eleven, George Balanchine made his stage debut at the Maryinsky Theater as a cupid in The Sleeping Beauty, and it was the magic of this ballet that first prompted him to devote his life to dance. In 1921, Stravinsky worked with Diaghilev to reconstruct The Sleeping Beauty in London; seven years later in Paris, when Balanchine and Stravinsky created their first important ballet, Apollon Musagète, they turned again to The Sleeping Beauty. Apollon Musagète was their ode to the French seventeenth century.1

But Apollon Musagète was also a radical departure. It had no “story” or lavish effects. Rather, it was a balletic essay structured as a series of tableaux: Apollo’s birth, his tutelage by the muses of poetry, mime and dance, and his reascent to Parnassus. It was pristine, lyrical, and spare—“White,” as Balanchine himself described it, “in places white on white.” Like Stravinsky’s music, its movements were classical but also unmistakably modern, bent, turned in, and weighted to the floor.

One of the things that separated Apollon Musagète from The Sleeping Beauty was the Russian Revolution. Stravinsky and Balanchine met “through” Petipa, Tchaikovsky, and the French seventeenth century, but only after each had embraced revolutionary ideas and aesthetics. To understand the radical beauty of Apollon Musagète, we must know what Stravinsky and Balanchine each brought to Paris in 1928.

As a young musician working in St. Petersburg at the turn of the century, Stravinsky fell under the spell of Diaghilev’s “World of Art” movement. Frustrated with the social agendas of nineteenth-century realism, Diaghilev and his contemporaries set out to create a new, “authentic” art. For many of them, the 1890 production of The Sleeping Beauty marked a critical turning point. It was, Alexander Benois later explained, “what I seem to have been waiting for since my earliest childhood.” “That evening,” rhapsodized Léon Bakst, “my vocation was decided.”2

Ballet promised to fulfill one of the group’s greatest ambitions: to create a new synthesis of dance, music, and painting, a Gesamtkunstwerk. The idea was Wagnerian, but with an important twist: they staked their future not on opera, but on ballet—Russian ballet. Diaghilev and his collaborators were convinced it held the seeds for a great artistic revival. Many of the artists who worked with him had close ties to the pre-revolutionary Russian arts and crafts movement, and shared its nostalgic desire to “collect” and capture the whole life of the Russian folk in artifacts, icons, and images.3 But their ambitions were also tied to the work and writings of a young choreographer, Michel Fokine.

Fokine was trained at the Maryinsky Theater and had worked with Petipa, but in the early years of the twentieth century, he rebelled. Ballet, he said, was hopelessly “confused.” It was historically nonsensical for pink-tutued ballerinas to run around with Egyptian-clad peasants and Russian top-booted dancers; ballet dancers were ridiculously “straight-backed.” Where, he asked, were the lilting, bending fig-ures so prominent in painting and sculpture? And the corps de ballet, arranged in sharp geometric configurations, was absurd—since when did crowds of peasants line up and dance in perfect synchrony?

Ballet, Fokine insisted, must be reformed, and it was here that his ideas dovetailed with Diaghilev’s: a ballet, he said, must “have complete unity of expression.” It must be historically consistent and stylistically accurate. Petipa’s French classical vocabulary was appropriate only for French classical or romantic subjects. If a ballet was about ancient Greece, then the choreographer must invent movement based on the art and sculptures of that place and time. In keeping with these ideas, Fokine began choreographing essay-length ballets organized around particular themes: Les Sylphides was a series of tableaux in the French Romantic style, and The Dying Swan was a study of frailty and resistance for a solo dancer.


In 1909, when Diaghilev organized the first European tour of the Ballets Russes, he brought in Michel Fokine as chief choreographer and hired the young Igor Stravinsky to work with him on a new ballet, Firebird. Stravinsky shared Diaghilev and Fokine’s vision. “I love ballet,” he wrote to his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov in 1911, “and am more interested in it than in anything else, for the only form of scenic art that sets itself, as its cornerstone, the tasks of beauty, and nothing else, is ballet.” “What interests me,” he later said, “is choreographic drama. …Opera is falsehood pretending to be truth, while I need falsehood that pretends to falsehood.”

Fokine and Stravinsky went some distance to making a new “choreographic drama” in Firebird (1910) and Petrouchka (1911), and Stravinsky continued this work with Vaslav Nijinsky in The Rite of Spring (1913). Ironically, however, these ballets turned increasingly away from the classical vocabulary: they had to. In Fokine and Diaghilev’s historicist aesthetic, classical ballet was not a universal form, but a particular style. The music for Stravinsky’s early ballets often drew on Russian folk themes, and Fokine and Nijinsky accordingly took their choreographic language from folk idioms and “primitive” forms.4

After the Russian Revolution, however, Stravinsky began to shift his musical course. From Paris he avidly followed the political developments in his homeland. He had hoped that the Revolution would herald the victory of Slav, peasant, and Christian Russia—the Russia of the pulsating rhythmic chords and angular, primitivist choreography of The Rite of Spring. Instead, as he later lamented, the Revolution was grim evidence that the country would not sustain a cultural tradition: “Russia has seen only conservatism without renewal or revolution without tradition.”

He began to retreat: into monarchism, right-wing politics, and aristocratic forms. Musically, he moved increasingly away from the “folk” and toward the more Western-influenced Russian heritage of Tchaikovsky.5 In 1921 he and Diaghilev mounted Petipa’s The Sleeping Beauty. In 1923 Les Noces premièred in Paris, with choreography by Bronislava Nijinska. It was the last of his “world of art” ballets drawing on Russian folk idioms. For Apollon Musagète, he turned instead to Nicolas Boileau’s 1674 defense of classicism, L’art poétique. Using Boileau’s poetry, he composed a rigorous, restrained, and lyrical score of “musical alexandrines” based on the laws of seventeenth-century rhyme and meter. This was the score that Stravinsky gave to Diaghilev and Balanchine in 1928.

Balanchine was a thirteen-year-old student in St. Petersburg when the 1917 Revolution broke out. He managed to complete his education, graduate, and join the ballet company in 1921. Then, in 1922, Balanchine married the dancer Tamara Zheverzheyeva (Geva), moved in with her family, and plunged headlong into the world of Revolutionary, avant-garde art. Geva’s father, who owned a factory that made religious supplies, was an art patron, collector, and political organizer who often held exhibitions and meetings in his house: Mayakovsky, Tatlin, and Malevich all came. Their messianic ideas and then interest in icons, religious mysticism, and folk mythologies were hotly debated in Zheverzheyev’s living room.

The young Balanchine and his friends admired these artists enormously, and discussed how “aristocratic” classical ballet might fit into the world of “progressive” art. Balanchine worked with Meyerhold on productions of Gluck’s Orfeo and Stravinsky’s The Nightingale. Meyerhold wanted to create a new acting style based on “biomechanics,” Taylorist work rhythms, and military tempi. He hoped to break down the barrier between the stage and the street. Balanchine also worked with the FEKS, the Factory of the Eccentric Actor, which sought to translate the rhythms of everyday life into stage and screen, a project they shared with Sergei Eisenstein.

In dance, Balanchine was drawn to the work of the former Bolshoi dancer and choreographer Kasyan Golei-zovsky. In the years following the Revolution, Goleizovsky set out to challenge stale “bourgeois” conventions: he made dances for Moscow cabarets, performed with Meyerhold, opened a school, and formed his own avant-garde company. He choreographed sensuous ballets about love and death with (as one disapproving critic put it) scantily clad dancers, “twisted poses,” and “everlasting embraces of legs.”

Balanchine also admired Fyodor Lopukhov, a prominent choreographer at the former Maryinsky Theater. Lopukhov was committed to Petipa’s classicism, but wanted to push its frontiers. Balanchine danced in his ambitious 1923 ballet, Dance Symphony: The Magnificence of the Universe, set to Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony. In it, Lopukhov dispensed with literary plot in favor of a musically driven “dance symphony.” With dances bearing titles such as “The Birth of the Sun” and “Thermal Energy,” he sought to harness “cosmic forces” in a surging, rhythmic spectacle.

By all accounts, Balanchine’s own early choreography, in which he sometimes danced, was equally dramatic, erotic, and mysterious. His dancers split their legs, bent into back-breaking bridges, opened their mouths in Munch-like screams; Tamara Geva remembers holding her leg high in arabesque and supporting herself “by a kiss on his lips.”


When Stravinsky played his Apollon Musagète in 1928, the young choreographer found it a revelation. For years, Balanchine had been pushing beyond classicism and his work had been full of experimental modern forms—draping bodies, erotic poses, and angular arms. Stravinsky’s music changed everything: it taught him, he later said, that he too “could dare not to use everything,” that he too “could eliminate.”6

And so, he did. In Apollon Musagète, Balanchine used Petipa’s classical language, but dispensed with defined poses and the tightly strung chains of steps which make the dancer pull the body in—stabilized, centered, and contained. Instead, Apollo and his Muses traveled easily and lyrically, as if walking. It was not the positions that structured the dance, but the transitions between steps, the delicate lunges, walks on point, bodies bending into the next phrase. Freed from the ramrod spine necessary for position-to-position dancing, Apollo’s body could collapse, bend, and twist.

In effect, Balanchine shifted the axis of classical technique. In a Petipa variation, the body is divided horizontally, tutu style, between “cut and slice” legs and lyrical arms and torso. What matters is the contrast between the two. But Balanchine created movement that made dancers split the body vertically, down the spine, the right side moving with or against the left. The effect was striking: it looked classical, but had a supple, pliant quality that marked a sharp departure from Petipa’s stricter, more static geometries. In coming years, Balanchine would push ever deeper into this plasticity, developing a radical, off-balance, sinuous, and bending classical style.

Choreographically, Apollon Musagète created a stylistically unified, Fokinesque “whole” world. But Balanchine broke with Fokine in one crucial respect. After a performance in Paris in 1928, a Russian critic reproached Balanchine: “Young man, tell me, where did you see Apollo walking on his knees?” Balanchine snapped back: “…Apollo doesn’t ‘walk on his knees’—he’s dancing.”

The critic had missed the point. Apollo was not a particular character à la Fokine. He was a god, with nobility and dignity. Thirty years later, when Balanchine coached Jacques d’Amboise in the role, he was still angry about the “walking on his knees” comment. It was not that at all, he said. The movement was bent deep and low in hand-wringing supplication. For Balanchine, what mattered was that the external shape, color, and tone of the movement capture an important idea. He was not interested in historical accuracy or what he called “petty, everyday” emotions: he was trying to show something more elevated: “supplication.”7

In 1957, Balanchine further simplified Apollo (as it was then renamed) by dispensing with the ballet’s seventeenth-century sets and costumes in favor of simple black-and-white practice cloths against a plain backdrop. As such, he brought Apollo into aesthetic orbit with his most recent Stravinsky collaboration: Agon.

Agon premièred in New York in 1957. Like Apollo, Agon began with a seventeenth-century text: in this case, a dance treatise by the ballet master François de Lauze, Apologie de la danse. Charles M. Joseph offers a detailed and illuminating discussion of the significance of this work for Agon. Lincoln Kirstein, he explains, sent a copy of de Lauze’s work to Stravinsky, with a note explaining Balanchine’s idea for a ballet in which “the dances which began quite simply in the sixteenth century took fire in the twentieth and exploded.” Importantly, the edition that Kirstein gave to Stravinsky was a modern one, which appended scholarly notes as well as excerpts of text and music by Marin Mersenne, a priest, musician, and contemporary of Descartes, Pascal, and Galileo. Stravinsky marked his copy of the book extensively, and referred to de Lauze and Mersenne while composing his score.

Stravinsky’s annotations demonstrate his keen interest in Baroque discussions of meter, rhythm, scansion, and the affinity between musical, poetic, and dance forms. In addition, Stravinsky seems to have paid close attention to scholarly speculation about the religious and pagan origins of various Baroque dances, such as ring dances with witches circling the Devil. Reading the text, courtesy of Joseph, “through Stravinsky’s eyes,” one is left with the impression that the Baroque ball, with its regimented suite of dances, was formal, rule-bound, and aristocratic—but also primitive and ritualistic.

Agon too is a suite of dances: duets, trios, and pas de quatres for twelve dancers performed in practice clothes against a neutral backdrop. The music is fierce, driving, and often atonal—but it is also gracious, witty, and courtly. The movement pulls between twisting introspection and humble grace as the dancers thrust headlong through space, only to stop and dissolve gently into a noble bow. It is, as Balanchine said, “a machine that thinks.”

Agon was the culmination of an aesthetic Balanchine first introduced in 1946 with The Four Temperaments, and it changed everything we know about how to watch a dance. Agon has no clear narrative, no melodic or lyrical line: rather, it piles blocks of movement and music one on top of another. Groups of dancers surge forward, swallowing up space in long dense phrases of dance until they suddenly stop, suspend in mid-step, or exit. These episodes are stacked rather than linked, accumulated rather than “told.” The rhythms shift constantly and abruptly, with the dancers often keeping their own time, weaving in and out of the beat until the suspense breaks and the music and dance meet. There are very few steps: rather, the dances are composed almost entirely of transitions. Dancers run, skip, jut, hop, turn, whip their legs high, and, above all, move. The women perform on point, but not to elevate or extend their line: rather, they stab the floor, dig in, pull themselves along, thrusting their weight down to push further off balance.

In spite of its unconventional language, however, Agon holds together: it does not feel fragmented, disjointed, or alienating. Partly, as Joseph demonstrates, this is because the music and dance interlock in a tightly calibrated visual and aural design. But there is another reason as well: Balanchine could dispense with narrative because he worked with human beings, not paint or humorless architectural bricks. It is the dancers that “think” in this musical and balletic “machine.”

This does not mean that they “act.” On the contrary, to impose “feelings” on movement is to cloud a real situation with artificial effect. The individual performer disappears: he “becomes” the character or feeling he acts, and the action shifts to “another,” imaginary world. But a dancer who is simply and unselfconsciously there faces the audience as a human being, with no constructed feelings to hide behind. This creates a disarming honesty, directness, and sense of “here and now” time. The distance between us and them, stage and life collapses.8


Critics often minimize the links between Agon’s physical immediacy and French classicism: de Lauze and Mersenne, it is said, were a mere “jumping-off point.” But with Mersenne and de Lauze, we are at the origins of classical ballet. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the five positions and a basic vocabulary of steps were just taking shape (and would soon be formally codified in Paris). Music was not an “art” so much as a science, classified with arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy; and dance was a subset of music. Mersenne was deeply involved in contemporary religious, musical, and mathematical debates. For him, music was a “beautiful part of mathematics,” and dance was a human representation of the order and precision of the planets in orbit: both were governed by rational laws, in perfect accord with the natural laws of the universe. He took music to be an all-encompassing religious and moral proposition. Musicians, he said, were “Christian Orpheuses” who could calm the passions and steer men to reason, virtue, and sacrifice to God.

Like his Renaissance predecessors, Mersenne was fascinated by the ways that “measured” music, poetry, and movement might be combined in an integrated spectacle. In Italy such inquiries led to the first operas; in France, they led to the ballet de cour. Seventeenth-century court dances were strictly defined by rhythm and musical form (bransle, saraband, gaillard). They were made of small, precise, elegant steps, many of which remain in the classical vocabulary today: they are the building blocks, the essential “how to present a foot or hand” and “how to get from here to there” transition steps that are the choreographic fabric of Agon.

Ballet was also, as de Lauze was careful to point out, an ethical code: “the science of behavior toward others.” It was respect, manners, breeding. This too was a religious idea. Aristocrats believed dance would “per-fect” their bodies, elevate their souls, and bring them “high” social standing—its elegance and precision illustrated and confirmed one’s proximity to King and God alike.

The symmetry between these ideas and the modernist creed articulated by Balanchine and Stravinsky is striking. “Nobody,” said Balanchine in 1962, “criticizes the sun or moon or the earth because it is very precise, and that’s why it has life. If it’s not precise, it falls to pieces.” When he received a section of the music for Agon, Balanchine was in awe: “not a single extra note; take one away and the whole thing crumbles.” This, he said, was a kind of truth.

To Stravinsky, notes were indeed a kind of truth: they were “mathematical,” as he put it, because they were “ideal.” But Balanchine worked with people. If he wanted precision he had to make dancers understand how to “do” the ideal and therefore, not surprisingly, he was a great teacher. Balanchine’s classes were famous for honing in on the basics: hours spent on tendus, fifth positions, and transition steps—little runs and pas de bourrés. He was also interested in the rationally consistent anatomical geometry of classical technique: fifth position is exactly heel to toe; a foot pointed front must be placed exactly in front of your nose, not a centimeter off. If you are off, it is not just incorrect, it strays from the truth, “and the whole thing crumbles.”9

When he said things like “just do the steps,” Balanchine was not telling his dancers to erase themselves or stop thinking; he was asking them to have faith and submit to the ordered laws of ballet and music, cosmic and physiological. It was not an invitation to plunge into an inchoate spirituality, but required acute self-awareness, clarity, and training. To master the truth, you had first to know exactly why you did a tendu this way and not that. “Sometimes” as one of his ballerinas astutely put it, “I feel like I am talking about a religion.”

Indeed, these essentially seventeenth-century ideas were also a bridge back to the Russian Orthodox faith. In the Orthodox Church, music and visual beauty are more important than the written word. It is through the senses that one finds God. The canons of the Christian Church, Stravinsky once insisted, were “the only place where order is practiced to the full: not a speculative, artificial order, but the divine order which is given to us and which must reveal itself as much in the inner life as in its exteriorization in painting, music, etc.” And so it was with Balanchine: “…My work is with what I see, with moving, with making ballets. So too with God, he is real, before me…. You see, that’s how I believe, and I believe so fantastic….”

The astonishing thing is that these ideas created a kind of art which also had currency in twentieth-century New York. To Balanchine’s dancers, his ideas made perfect sense. They insist that he taught them to respect ballet as a set of ethical principles—about hard work, humility, precision, limits, and self-presentation. Ballet was not just a profession; it was a way to live. They knew that they were becoming aristocrats of a sort, even when they were also street kids or corn-fed midwestern gals. Their direct, open, and unselfconscious physical trust and daring—their willingness to submit to the laws of ballet and music—fit perfectly with Balanchine and Stravinsky’s emerging aesthetic.

To New York audiences, Agon was a technical, machine-like, here-and-now, modern ballet, and Balanchine and Stravinsky’s “new spectacle” seemed to embody twentieth-century, urban American vitality. In this context, “about twenty-eight minutes” sounded like a “just the steps and notes” doctrine. But it was not. Like their dances, it pointed to a religious and classical sensibility: dance and music made according to universal, divine laws does not require explanation.

The paradox is important: ballet in America was radically recast by two Russians born in the twilight of the nineteenth century and steeped in classicism, folk traditions, and the Orthodox faith; by men who steered away from the twentieth century and set ballet on a religious and humanist course. Following Stravinsky’s musical lead, Balanchine pulled ballet back to its classical foundations and built a modern tradition. No wonder he liked to quote the Russian choreographer, Lopukhov: “Forward—to Petipa!” As for Stravinsky, he invoked Verdi, “Let us return to old times, and that will be progress.”

This Issue

December 19, 2002